Norwich school system phones faulty

Norwich — The start of the new school year went smoothly for students, staff and even relatively smoothly for bus transportation, but the school district’s new phone system is failing fast and probably can’t be fixed.

Schools and central office phones have had “intermittent service” since the start of school last week, Superintendent Abby Dolliver told the Board of Education on Tuesday. At times parents haven’t been able to reach school officials to relay issues about students, and schools are having trouble reaching school bus drivers with issues.

The emergency call system that would alert parents if necessary still is working, school Business Administrator Athena Nagel said, because authorized users can access that system with their cellphones. School security and alarm systems also are on a different network and not affected.

The problem lies in the Toshiba hardware in the $200,000 phone system installed just two years ago. The Toshiba phone division apparently now is defunct, Nagel said. The school system’s technology staff has been calling firms across the country trying to find a specialist on the Toshiba hardware with no luck. Phone system contractor Pilot House has sent staff to Norwich and has found relatively small glitches here and there, but not the overriding problem, Nagel said.

The school system used several different grants to pay for the system, and there’s little chance of obtaining similar grants to replace a system so new, Nagel told the school board. Given this year’s tight budget, there’s no money to pay for another new phone system.

As of Tuesday, phones at eight of the 14 school system buildings appeared to be working. All phone lines at Case Street preschool building were down Tuesday. Only six extensions at central office were working and about a quarter of the phones at Kelly Middle School were functioning.

City and school officials will meet Wednesday to discuss the problem and possible solutions if the system cannot be fixed. Dolliver has set Friday as a “drop dead” date for having a solution before she seeks an emergency replacement of the system, which could entail joining the system that city government and Norwich Public Utilities installed last year.

Only a fluke in timing prevented the school system from being included in what could have been a citywide new phone system. The school system had obtained its grants a year earlier and faced time limits for using the funding. The city and NPU were not yet ready to go out to bid at the time for its new system, Nagel said. Joining the city and NPU phone system would remove any problems with finding tech support, she said.

A special Board of Education meeting is planned for next week, and an update on the phone problems with a possible vote on a solution could be added to the agenda, Dolliver told the board. No matter what solution is found, Dolliver said paying for it will be a challenge.

“We don’t have a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Dolliver said.

School board Vice Chairman Dennis Slopak questioned how the problem came about and whether anyone had checked the “financial health” of the Toshiba system before choosing the company. Nagel said the bid went through the usual city bidding system, which includes checks of references and background checks on the company. But no one could predict the demise of the well-known technology brand.

“It wasn’t a bad name,” Nagel said. “References were checked and everything.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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